The State of Opportunity

Alan Jenkins

As Obama’s first 100 days draw to a close, new research shows that addressing today’s economic crisis will require reinvesting in a bedrock American principle: Opportunity. The State of Opportunity, released last week by The Opportunity Agenda, measures our nation’s progress in ensuring that all Americans, and our nation as a whole, have a fair chance to achieve their full potential. The results are sobering.

Drawing on a large body of government data, the report charts opportunity on a range of indicators—economic security and mobility, equal access, democratic voice, the chance to start over after missteps or misfortune, and a coherent sense of community—across a variety of sectors—from employment to education to housing to criminal justice and beyond. Because the most recent year for which most government data is available is 2007, the report provides a unique picture of opportunity just before today’s crisis took hold.

It shows that Opportunity was both highly uneven and highly unequal for millions of Americans before the recession that began in December of 2007. Over 37 million Americans—12.5% of our nation’s population—were living in poverty in 2007, while the rates for Latinos and African Americans were a staggering 21.5% and 24.5%, respectively. Almost 11% of full-time workers were already living in poverty that year.

Significant gender and racial wage gaps existed in 2007, with women making just 78.2% of men’s median wages, and women with a college degree earning just 65.2% of the wages made by equally-educated men. Latinos earned just 72.6% of the white median wage, and African Americans earned 75.2%. Latina women earned just 58.7% of all men. Overall, the richest 20% of Americans earned almost half (47.3%) of all income in the country, and the richest 5% earned 20.1%.

More than 11% of US households suffered “food insecurity” in 2007, which meant that their eating patterns were disrupted because they lacked money and other resources for food. But almost 17% of American children suffered that fate. And in 2006 (the latest year for which figures are available), 7.8% of all Americans—and 8.4% of women—were already delaying medical care due to cost.

What these numbers mean, among other things, is that it will not be enough for the president and Congress to restore our economy to 2007 levels. Instead, to ensure our nation’s future prosperity, they must create greater and more equal opportunity than we have seen in many years.

The 2009 economic stimulus legislation, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the president’s proposed budget are steps in the right direction because they combine short-term job creation with longer-term investments in education and health care. But more transformative change is needed to set our country on the right course.

Along with data on pressing problems, the State of Opportunity includes specific recommendations for reinvesting in opportunity for all. They include targeting job training and financial literacy programs in low-income communities and communities of color; investing in community health clinics, effective public transportation, and affordable, mixed-income housing; and reinvigorating our nation’s equal opportunity infrastructure, including the Justice Department, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the US Civil Rights Commission.

Finally, the report recommends that an Opportunity Impact Statement be used to ensure that federally funded projects create greater and more equal opportunities through job creation, affordable housing, health care infrastructure, and economic development. That tool has become especially important in the context of the near-trillion-dollar stimulus package and the ongoing Troubled Assets Relief Program.

In short, the state of opportunity in our country calls for a fundamental reinvestment in values as well as systems.

The first hundred days have been promising ones for the values of opportunity, including the Ledbetter Equal Pay Act and a path toward universal health care, as well as a robust stimulus plan and greater accountability for TARP funds. But the next 100 days must include building the enforcement systems and political will necessary to fulfill those values for everyone in our country.

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